If you ever find yourself in Singapore, one thing you should do is leave Singapore and pop over to Sumatra for a vicious and beautiful hike. Bob Fest- to whom I will only refer by his full name because I love it- recommended that I do this because Sumatra is one of only two places left- the other being Borneo- where you can see orangutans (from orang = human and utan = forest) in their natural habitat and honey, it is nuts.
“Fockin ‘ell!” as one of the Brits with me said. And he wasn’t kidding.
The hike started with a pleasant stroll through a woodsy area, where farmers were harvesting the rubber trees and monkeys snapped banana breakfast off the bunch.
The bloody mozzies- I’m allowed to say stuff like that now because I spent the day with Rory and George, a couple of UK-raised city boys out for a laugh- were also breakfasting, except on me. Note to self: jungle bugs are no joke. If the airport confiscates your aerosol DEET, replace it. Replace it so, so hard.
Speaking of hard, did you know that Sumatra is mountainous? I suppose if I had thought about it, the word “highlands” might have come to mind, but I did precious little thinking about anything but great apes when I pictured this trip. And I am definitely recommending this trip, but before you go: get in shape, girl. Going up, it was so steep that my k-caps were closer to my chest than the ground for each step, and we’d use thick, sturdy branches to haul us up further. It’s quite a workout for the whole glutes area. Difficulty levels were the same going down except knees- instead of buns- took the brunt, and we went way up and way down five or six times each. I spent a lot of the hike trying not to breathe too loudly because I was with four men, all of whom were 10-15 years younger, and I wanted to represent.
It was absolutely worth it, however, when we came upon the orangs. The first couple were just hanging out being gentle and lazy near another bunch of monkeys, so we hung out, too, gaping and wide-eyed and clicking away. Our guides, Hermie and Juju, kept pointing us toward the best photo ops and giving us tidbits of helpful jungle knowledge.
“The orangutans’ natural predators,” Hermie said, “are pythons and tigers.”
Well, that was a bit worrisome until he eventually added that pythons are nocturnal. As for tigers, they rarely see them, but carefully monitor motion-sensitive cameras in order to stay out of their way. Humans are in the same family as orangutans- in fact, we’re more closely related to them and to other great apes like gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos than apes are to monkeys- and the apes tend to warily ignore us here. Tigers, on the other hand, are not afraid to make the first lethal move.
I should back up and say that there is one terrifying orang named Mina. Mina has apparently attacked over a hundred visitors and guides, and is locally famous for her propensity to bite. Like, people: she bites people. When we hiked through her territory, Juju went way ahead scouting, and then made sure she was continually fed (fruit) while we scuttled and stared.
This is Mina:
And this little one swung around nearby:
Of course, I had to capture more Thomas’s Leaf monkeys:
And then after five or so hours and a solid leg and eye workout, Juju and I broke off for the duration. The other guys were spending the night on a platform in the jungle or some other such craziness so hiked deeper into the underbrush. I, on the other hand, dunked myself almost immediately upon reaching this river:
and then it was time to raft! It’s about a half hour of drift, occasional whitewater, and monitor lizards sunning themselves before arrival back at the guest house, and I thought my day was complete.
But oh! Another adventure!
This nice local man popped by my room to check on tomorrow’s ride and payment, and that’s when we realized that the guesthouse only takes cash, and I had none.
“No worries, no worries,” he grinned, “I’ll take you to ATM on motorbike. I’m very good driver. It’s only 8, 9 kilometers away.”
Ohhhhh, the fear. If you know me, you know that I’m locked in a lifelong struggle with anything with two wheels. Bikes? Crashed, or crashed into. Scooter? Goodbye, $1000 and hello, shredded shin skin. And those are the only three times I’ve attempted since 2001.
Somehow today, I felt obligated. I found myself (seconds later, and without forethought) helmetless on the back of a motorbike, knees in a death grip around this Indonesian stranger and putt-putting down a road that looked a lot like this
except with more potholes and fewer cooperative rocks. Also without the benefits of vehicular laws or courtesy. There was bouncing and swerving. There was a bridge over troubled water that was barely wider than we were, and it was made of strung wire and rotting wood.*
*I didn’t have a camera at the time, but later I was able to snap this thing so you could get a vague idea. Picture this, but with fewer wires and boards. Yeah.
“Oh my… oh,” I shuddered. “That was really scary.”
“That’s because some of the planks are falling off.”
Again I say to you: eh?
We sped up after the bridge and dodged water buffalo, literal chickens crossing the road, and then ducks and a single cow. We passed fires and tires-as-speed-bumps. Children were yelling hello to me, despite the hundreds of other motorbikes weaving on the roads. I forced smiles at them, whiter even than usual but trying to be the friendly Caucasian.
A machete-wielding man worked the rice paddy to our left, and past him danced the Muslim ladies’ outdoor aerobics troupe. A van stopped short in front of us, and opened the door in our faces as we passed on the right. Another cut us off horizontally, then stopped dead in the road.
“That’s Indonesia,” said my driver after our skid, good-naturedly shaking his head. My hands had become claws on the grip bars.
In my absolute terror, and in the middle of the trip, I managed to look up. We were passing a river in which the happy little nakeds were bathing, and there was a jungle behind it, mountains behind that, and all was capped by a fiery start to the sunset. It was magic hour, and all of a sudden magical.
This has quite possibly been the most exhilarating day of my life.
Good thing, too, because when, after 20 minutes, we got to the ATM, I had definitely forgotten to bring my card. Fear factor for what, now?
Doesn’t matter- as I write this I’m having a pleasant porch beer, and I’m highly recommending this adventure spot. Go here, guys: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra.
Motorbikes notwithstanding, it’s the good life.